The 2020 Annual Meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies may have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t stop us from moving what was supposed to be an in-person Media+Environment panel to a written, online, open-access forum. In the “collective essay” excerpted here, authors Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk and Lucas Hilderbrand discuss the adverse environmental effects of streaming media.

Calculating and Mitigating Our Streaming Carbon Footprint
Laura U. Marks

Most research and activism intended to slow global warming focuses on sectors known to have significant greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), such as road transportation (estimated at 11.9 percent of global GHG in 2016), heating residential buildings (10.9 percent), air transportation (1.9 percent), and agricultural livestock (5.8 percent, mostly due to methane gas) (Ge and Friedrich 2020). We environmentalist media scholars need to pay attention to the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from streaming video.

Despite corporate-led hopes that information and communications technologies (ICT) will lead to greater energy efficiency in other areas (GeSI 2015), these efficiencies may be outweighed by the rising electricity consumption of ICT themselves (Lange, Pohl, and Santarius 2020). That consumption, driven by data servers, networks, and consumer devices, currently emits 2.7–3.3 percent of global greenhouse gases (Belkhir and Elmeligi 2018; Lorincz, Capone, and Wu 2019) and is cautiously projected to comprise 7 percent of global greenhouse emissions in 2030 and 15 percent in 2040 (Belkhir and Elmeligi 2018).[1] Streaming media contributes more than any other sector to this increase (Cisco 2020).

Driving this exponential rise is video, as more people around the world stream at higher bandwidth for longer periods. Research on ICT suggests that streaming media will constitute 74 percent of mobile data traffic in 2024 (Alsharif et al. 2019). As well as increased smartphone use, high-definition (HD) video is feeding this surge. The bit rate for streaming 4K video, 15–18 megabits per second, is more than double the HD video bit rate and nine times more than that of standard-definition (SD) video. Even the most industry-friendly study notes, “Broadband-speed improvements result in increased consumption and use of high-bandwidth content and applications” (Cisco 2020, 15). This is the Jevons paradox: more efficient technologies often encourage greater use of a resource, reducing or eliminating savings.

I am working with IT engineers Stephen Makonin and Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva to survey research in IT engineering and translate the technical language into accessible terms. Reading this literature, I have the impression that the industry is outsourcing the unsustainable demand for more bandwidth to engineering miracles, logarithmic tweaking, and 5G fever dreams (see Denise Oleksijczuk’s contribution).

Calculating the environmental impact of streaming video requires identifying the energy source at each point, from data centers to end user. While this varies greatly among countries and regions, currently about 80 percent of global electricity is generated from fossil fuels (World Bank 2014; The Shift Project 2019). Read more…

Media+Environment is an open-access, online, peer-reviewed journal of transnational and interdisciplinary ecomedia research. The journal seeks to foster dialogue within a fast-growing global community of researchers and creators working to understand and address the myriad ways that media and environments affect, inhabit, and constitute one another. Founded on the premise that media and environment is a crucial conjunction for our time, the journal thus encourages both traditional and multimodal forms of scholarship.